Are kettlebell swings/cleans/snatches safe during pregnancy?
As with most questions related to pregnancy and postpartum fitness, it depends. That's no one's favorite answer, but the good news is, they absolutely can be!
During any exertion, your body generates pressure in your abdomen to stabilize your spine. Your ability to manage this pressure and your tolerance to quick on/offs in pressure will dictate whether or not you can handle ballistic exercises at any given time.
Ballistic exercises, which include things like kettlebell swings, snatches and cleans, are fast, dynamic and explosive movements that challenge your body to fluctuate quickly between states of tension and relaxation. Your inner core (pelvic floor, transverse abdominals, diaphragm), responsible for stabilizing your torso at the top of these lifts, needs to be able to manage rapid changes in intra-abdominal pressure generated across the tension-relaxation cycles.
During pregnancy, the inner core adapts to the demands of a growing fetus. The pelvic floor experiences chronically increasing loads, the transverse abdominals stretch, the fascia stretching between them thins, the diaphragm begins to lose range of motion as its downward trajectory is crowded. Over the course of pregnancy, particularly into the second and third trimesters, the extra load imposed by ballistic exercises can be extra strain on an increasingly stressed system.
If you perform these moves and you feel pressure in your vagina, you pee a little, or you feel pressure or observe doming through your abdomen, it’s an indication of strain to your core and pelvic floor. If this happens you will need to consider your pressure-management strategy. Conversely, if you aren’t yet noticing any of these symptoms I would still urge you to take an active interest in the way you stabilize your core and manage pressure in order to minimize the additional strain you add to your core and pelvic floor through exercise. Doing so can greatly reduce your chances of developing core and pelvic floor symptoms later on.
Pressure management strategy revolves around breathing and breath control. If you haven’t already implemented the connection breath, essentially a kegel coordinated to a diaphragmatic breath, now’s the time to learn it.
I’ve written about breathing pretty extensively, so I’ll direct you to some pretty comprehensive, helpful resources: Breathing strategies for Pregnancy and Postpartum or The No B.S. Guide to Breathing for a Strong Pregnancy and Postpartum.
If you want to swing bells (or engage in any other ballistic exercise) while you’re pregnant, experiment with your breath. You can try exhaling with a pelvic floor contraction during the hardest part of the movement (typically while controlling the upswing and bringing the hips into extension). You can also exhale just prior to the hard part, or exhale through the entire range of motion.
Hardstyle kettlebell methods teach a hard “tssss” tension breath to brace the core through ballistic movements. This breath can be overly aggressive for people during pregnancy, postpartum or if they’re dealing with a pelvic organ prolapse. If you have been working with the tension breath, instead try exhaling like you’re blowing out candles, and tune the strength of your exhale to the demand of the movement you’re doing. Not every move requires maximum tension!
If breathing doesn’t completely clean up your symptoms, you can also vary your body alignment. A lot of people have a tendency to overextend their hips and tuck their pelvis at the tops of these ballistic exercises- that extra range of motion is not only unnecessary but can be the culprit behind leaking pee or feelings of bulging in the pelvic floor. In the video below, I'm showing you a stacked alignment at the top of a kettlebell swing (left video) compared to a hyperextended, thrusty alignment (right video). Check your alignment at the top of your swing by having someone record a video of your swing. Aim to keep your shoulders, pelvis and ankles in a straight line at the top of the swing, just like they would be positioned if you were performing a plank on the floor.
If none of these strategies work, I urge you to find an in-person coach to help you troubleshoot. If, after ample troubleshooting, you find that these strategies don’t help, you may want to substitute a different exercise.
Now, if these exercises are not problematic, keep on! These exercises are fantastic ones for training coordination and reflexive firing of the inner core canister, two things that are frequently disrupted during pregnancy. These exercises also fight common postural compensations acquired during pregnancy. By training the hamstrings, glutes, and lats, practicing these moves can help pull the pelvis out of the sway posture that often characterizes people during pregnancy.
As you return to exercise postpartum, remember that these lifts are progressions from slower, less dynamic lifts like the deadlift. The deadlift trains the coordination of breath and movement, and the management of pressure through tension and relaxation, but the movements are slower and the intervals are longer. Work back to kettlebell swings, cleans and snatches by first getting back to deadlifts and then speeding those up.
One last note, ballistic exercises train your pelvic floor to handle rapid, explosive changes in intra-abdominal pressure. This demand is different from that of something like running, which involves ground forces and in which the intra-abdominal pressure fluctuations can’t be managed by breathing. But, since it does test your pelvic floor’s ability to manage increased demand, these movements can be a nice training tool on the road back to impact exercise. Running demands impeccable reflexive control of the core; ballistic exercises can help train that control.
Personally, I trained with kettlebells through both of my pregnancies. During my first pregnancy, I was able to swing bells until about 35 weeks and at that point they would trigger uncomfortable Braxton-Hicks contractions. During my second pregnancy, I stopped swinging much earlier due to discomfort in pelvic floor and abs. Each time I returned to kettlebell training postpartum, I’ve been able to swing heavier than I could before my pregnancies. In large part, it’s because I’ve learned how to engage my core properly when I exercise and my whole body has gotten a lot stronger because of it.
Ballistic exercises can be an absolutely stellar addition to your prenatal exercise program. If you weren’t already proficient with them prior to pregnancy, consider whether they’re something you really need to implement right now. It’s okay if they’re not! These exercises demand a ton of core stability and control and learning them at a time when your core strength and stability are potentially comprised might not be the most advisable. Learn to breathe with your core function in mind. And keep an eye out for the signs and symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction so that you know when it’s time to seek help or change course. If your goal is long term fitness and pelvic health, be honest with your self and shelve the bells if and when it feels like they’re pushing your body past its capacity.
I wish you the best for a strong pregnancy and even stronger postpartum.
If you are an athlete, active womxn, or otherwise place a high value on your physical fitness and long term pelvic health, download this guide to learn four key considerations to guide your childbirth preparation.
Laura is a personal trainer and kettlebell instructor, based in Redmond, WA, exclusively serving pregnant and postpartum people. In addition to providing personal training, she offers additional perinatal support- as a Seattle-area birth doulaand by offering pelvic health support services, online or in-person. Contact her through her website by clicking here.